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As you know, today is the first Sunday in Advent. We use the four Sundays of Advent to get ready to celebrate the birth of our Savior on Christmas. Coincidentally, the Holy Spirit thought it good for us to also have FOUR different accounts of Jesus' life recorded in the Bible. This year we're going to let the Gospel writers prepare our hearts for Christmas.
Our first reading comes from...
Matthew 1:1-17 (ESV)
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
Reading through this first section of Matthew is a bit like watching an old comedy that contains a lot of cultural references. When you watch a movie produced in a different time and a different culture, you hear the names, but you don't get the jokes. Not that Matthew was telling any jokes here.
Matthew was writing this Gospel account for Jewish people. People who had grown up in the culture of Israel. People who knew the history of their nation as recorded in the Old Testament. If we're not familiar with the names in this list, than all we're going to get out of this section is a database of descendants connecting Abraham to king David, and king David to Jesus Christ. And that is important. The main reason why Matthew starts his Gospel with a genealogy is to show his Jewish readers that Jesus was the legal descendant of king David. One of Matthew's major goals in writing this Gospel was to show his fellow Jews that Jesus was not just ANY descendant of David, He was the PROMISED Son of David. The one who was foretold to reign over an eternal Kingdom. Matthew's first step in laying out the evidence is to relate the legal genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there's also an undercurrent here. Something under the surface that tugs at the reader. Matthew doesn't just methodically list out the names needed to prove the connection. He adds little details that color in the character of this family tree.
To understand where this undercurrent of information is headed, we need to dive in a little deeper and understand who these people were, and what their history was.
Now, most families have a few skeletons in the closet when it comes to the family tree. But Jesus' family tree is FULL of unsavory characters: godless men, murderers, adulterers, prostitutes, twisted and greedy men.
Matthew draws our attention to the first of these in verse 3 when he says, "Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar". Here's the rest of the story. One of Judah's sons married a girl named Tamar. But this particular son was so wicked, that God put him to death. So Tamar was a made a widow. Judah promised her that when his younger son Shelah was old enough, she could have him as her husband. But when Shelah grew up, Judah did nothing, and Tamar was left to fend for herself.
But Tamar hatched a plan. She took off her widow's clothing and put on regular clothes, and a veil to hide her face. Then she went and sat down at the gates of a city that she knew Judah would be passing by. When Judah came along, he liked what he saw, and not recognizing the veiled Tamar, he procured her services as a prostitute. The union resulted in twin boys being born—Perez and Zerah.
The next little story Matthew invites us to see is a little less shady. In verse 5 he writes, "and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth". Now, Ruth wasn't Jewish by birth. She was from the land of Moab. This wasn't as bad as being a prostitute, but the Jews didn't exactly look favorably at foreign brides. You were supposed to marry another Jew. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but none the less, a black mark in the eyes of the Jewish people.
What really gets our attention is how Matthew mentions king Solomon. He could have just wrote, "David was the father of Solomon, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam" but he doesn't. Instead in verse 6 he writes, "David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah".
If you remember, David was the king at the time he first saw Uriah's wife. It was the spring time, and David's armies had gone out to conquest. David however, had stayed home at the palace. One day he looked out and noticed a woman bathing. He had her brought to the palace, and the union resulted in a baby being conceived.
As if that wasn't dishonorable enough, David then tried to cover up his adultery by making it look like Uriah was the father of the child. He summoned Uriah from the battlefields with the pretense of asking him how the war was going. Then he told Uriah that as long as he was in Jerusalem, he might as well go home for the night.
Uriah wouldn't go. He thought it would be dishonorable to sleep in the comfort of his own bed, with his wife, when his own battalion was still out sleeping in tents.
So, David took it a step further. He invited Uriah to dinner at the palace and got him drunk. David figured that under the influence of alcohol Uriah would surely give in, and go home in an amorous mood.
But Uriah still wouldn't go. So David resorted to plan B. He sent a dispatch to Uriah's commander in the field. He was to place Uriah on the front lines, and when the fight was fiercest, they were to draw back so that Uriah was alone.
This plan worked, and Uriah was killed in battle.
Adultery, lies, drunkenness, treachery, and murder. All these things king David hung on the family tree of Christ.
After Solomon, Matthew mentions Solomon's son Rehoboam. Rehoboam was the presiding king of Israel when the nation was split in two forever. It happened like this. King Solomon had passed away and they were about to crown his son Rehoboam as the next king. But when the people asked if Rehoboam would lighten the harsh taxes that Solomon had laid on the people, Rehoboam followed the advice of his young friends instead of the counsel of his older and wiser advisors. Here's a direct quote from the arrogant little brat. Rehoboam said, "My little finger is thicker than my father's thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions"(1 Kings 12:10-11 ESV).
So much for earning the people's respect. All the tribes of Israel rebelled against Rehoboam. Only his own tribe, the tribe of Judah, remained loyal to him. The rest of the nation split to the north. It was a horrible moment in the history of Israel. The tribes to the north began to worship golden idols instead of the LORD, and not ONE of the northern kings was ever a follower of the LORD.
Nice job Rehoboam. Another nice legacy to hang in the family's closet.
Eventually the northern kingdom was swept away altogether by the invading forces of Assyria. The southern kingdom of Judah, however, survived a bit longer. But, as the years went on, the southern kingdom had to endure quite a line of evil kings. The names that Matthew records in verses 7-11 are all kings of Judah. Some were followers of the LORD who instituted reforms and tried to draw the people back to worshiping the LORD instead of worshiping at the shrines of idols. But most of the kings were unbelieving and wicked men. Men like Abijah, Joram, Jotham, Ahaz, Manassseh, Amos and Jechoniah brought idols into the Temple of the LORD. They worshipped false gods and encouraged the people to do the same.
The Bible records a few little notes that illustrate how wicked these kings were. Ahaz was so wicked that when he died, they refused to bury him in the sepulcher of the kings.
Under the reign of Manasseh a systematic and persistent attempt was made to abolish all worship of the LORD in the land. The Bible says that "Manasseh led [the people] astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel" (2 Kings 21:9 ESV).
Eventually, because of their unbelief and idol worship, God allowed the nation of Babylon to conquer and deport most of the southern kingdom's citizens. Matthew mentions this deportation in verse 11. Today we call it the Babylonian captivity.
Matthew winds up his "genealogical history lesson" with a few names that bridge the gap between the Babylonian captivity and the time of Christ. Through the hand of the LORD the people of Israel were allowed to return and rebuild their land. The Temple of the LORD was rebuilt, and eventually Jesus' stepfather Joseph was born. His name is the final legal link connecting Abraham and David to Jesus.
Like I said earlier, Matthew was writing his Gospel for Jewish people. And besides the legal genealogy connection, they would have absorbed the undercurrent here as well. This was a family tree full of unbelief, unfaithfulness, and dark sin.
So why write it this way? Or why write it at all? And how does Matthew expect this sinful history lesson to help us get ready to celebrate the birth of Christ?
It's probably pretty obvious by now. But I'll let the words of the apostle Paul sum it up for us.
" 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).
Matthew doesn't shy away from all the sinful baggage contained in Jesus' family tree because that's why Jesus came. He was the Son of God, and the real physical descendant of David wrapped up in one God-Man. He came from a line of sinners, to save sinners from hell. When the sinless Jesus went to the cross, He suffered the punishment for every single sin ever committed. He suffered for the sins of his ancestors. He suffered for the sins of you and me. And when He gave His life on the cross, He erased our sins forever, and opened the way to forgiveness to all who would trust in Him as the promised Messiah King.
Matthew prepares us for Christmas by turning our eyes to see sin. The sins of people long dead, and our own sins today. Truly seeing that we are sinners who deserve hell is crucial preparation for Christmas. Only a patient convinced of their terminal illness will seek medical attention. That's what Matthew does for us today. He shows us that we need a Savior desperately if we're going to escape the legacy of sin that we've laid down with our own sinful lives. Inwardly we make not group ourselves with the wicked people found in Jesus' genealogy, but God's standards of holiness are much higher than our own. And our own personal sins condemn us just as much as the sins of Jesus' ancestors condemned them.
But in Christ Jesus, God has given us a Savior—the Son of Man and the Son of God. The Messiah who gave His sinless life in our place, and gives us the gift of God's righteousness, like a brilliant white robe coving all our dark deeds.
I've noticed that a lot of modern churches use Advent for social welfare programs. They use the time before Christmas to take on some kind of social project like helping to make clean water available in third world countries. Or they take up a collection for a local food bank, or for clothes for the homeless, or something similar.
And these are good things they're doing. But when it really comes down to it, Advent and Christmas are not about what we can do. Advent and Christmas are about what God has done for us. We've got nothing of lasting value to offer God. All we've got is a legacy of bad decisions and sinful behaviors. But right into the middle of our sin darkened lives, God sets down His little Boy. His only Son, to be the light of our salvation.
That's what Matthew experienced, and that's what he wanted us to experience too. You see, before Matthew became Matthew, people knew him as "Levi the tax-collector". Collecting taxes for Rome, his neighbors considered him a traitor. Filling his pockets by charging more than was required, they knew him to be a broad-daylight thief. But then Jesus came into Levi's life, and invited him into fellowship with the eternal and gracious God. Matthew knew sin, but then Matthew came to know forgiveness in Christ.
If you take anything away from today's meditation, take this. We've all got skeletons in the closest: in our family tree, and in our own lives. We've all got a past thoroughly stained with sin, but in Christ Jesus, we've got forgiveness for this, and a future that includes eternal life lived as a part of God's family, in God's house.
Forget the presents, if you've got this, then you're ready to celebrate Christ this Christmas. Amen.